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In Praise of Ruins: What the Fallen Grandeur of Ancient Rome Teaches Us

“Isn't it cool to be that much closer to the viewers of the first and second century?” This, I learned as I read the New York Times the other morning, is how Steven Fine, director of the Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project and professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York, expressed his enthusiasm for the recent finding that the famous menorah in the bas-relief of the spoils of Jerusalem was originally painted a rich yellow ocher that would have looked like gold. Had the professor expressed his enthusiasm on the grounds that the finding advanced the quest of historians and archeologists to attain a fuller picture of the original appearance of ancient Rome, I might have understood why he described it as “cool.” In a 3-D model of ancient Rome, “Rome Reborn,” being developed at the University of Virginia, the director Bernard Frischer said that with this new information, the Arch of Titus will be the first monument to have “full restored color.” That certainly is “cool.” But how, I wondered, did the notion that the Arch of Titus was previously brightly colored—even garishly so to eyes accustomed to seeing white marble ruins—bring us closer to the men and women who conducted their lives in the forum, the grand center of imperial Rome during the first and second centuries? More prosaically, how could we even presume that we were seeing the same ocher pigment that they saw? And why, except for the dictates of archaeological accuracy, should our definitive image of the arch commemorating the military triumph over Judea by the great general Titus, who would later be crowned emperor and ultimately deified—a monument that has somehow survived the devastating effects of time, accident, and sheer malice over its long 2000-year existence—be restricted to the moment when it was first built?

These thoughts crossed my mind while I was looking at one of the small black-and-white photos accompanying the article, an upward perspective of the Arch of Titus—solid, stately, and fully restored—as it stands today in the tidy, excavated, largely sterile archaeological dig site that is now the Roman forum. Whenever I come across such photos, I think of Piranesi’s famous engravings of the Rome of his time—eighteenth-century Rome—as a haphazard layering up of partially buried, corroding monuments, disintegrating triumphal arches, fallen and detached columns, all being taken over by luxuriant foliage and vegetation of many kinds. (The Colosseum was renowned for its hundreds of varieties of thickly perfumed wildflowers.) Before I traveled to Italy, my imagination of the ancient city had been formed by reproductions of Piranesi’s magnificent engravings with their dramatic scale and masterful chiaroscuro effects, which, I was disappointed to find, bore almost no resemblance to what remains of these same structures today.

My volume of Piranesi contains two different views of the “Arco di Tito.” Both depict it as an enormous mass of crumbling brick and weather-beaten marble columns and ornaments, with bits of foliage—weeds, ivy, vines, a tree branch—breaking through its many cracks, a structure of such staggering, monumental proportions—no doubt meant to suggest the physical magnitude of antiquity as well as its tem­poral reach—that it cannot be made to fit in its entirety within the picture frame of the page. The engravings reveal that the arch that stood in the eighteenth century was in a far more fragmentary and mutilated condition than the one that occupies its place today, but also, and more surprisingly, they show the aged but still intact remnants of a fortress that the Frangipane family had built into the even more time-worn arch during their occupation of it in the twelfth century. (The Frangipanes had also fortified and oc­cupied the nearby Colosseum.) I still remember my shock when I read in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire about the “potent and forcible” role played by the Roman aris­tocracy in the devastation of the city during centuries of civil war. Gibbon sets out in alarm­ing detail the “dark period” stretching between the tenth and fifteenth centuries when warring noble families adapted what remained of antiq­uity as foundations for armed fortresses and strong towers:

We can name the modern turrets that were raised on the  triumphal monuments of Julius Caesar, Titus, and the Antonines. With some slight alterations, a theatre, an amphitheatre, a mausoleum, was transformed into a strong and spacious citadel. I need not repeat that the mole of Hadrian has assumed the title and form of the castle of St. Angelo; the Septizonium of Severus was capable of standing against a royal army; the sepulchre of Metulla has sunk under its outworks; the theatres of Pompey and Marcellus were occupied by the Savelli and Ursini families.

Under these conditions, the ancient landmarks came repeatedly un­der attack and were fatally compromised. Which allowed Gibbon to conclude, with typical ironic flair, that the ruin of Rome was the consequence not of “days of foreign hostility” but of “ages of domestic hostility.” And he appeals to Petrarch for confirmation:

“Behold,” says the laureate, “the relics of Rome, the image of her pristine greatness! neither time nor the barbarian can boast the merit of this stupendous destruction: it was perpetrated by her own citizens, by the most illustrious of her sons; and your ancestors (he writes to a noble  Annibali) have done with the battering-ram, what the Punic hero could not accomplish with the sword.”

Piranesi witnessed in his own day the ruthless destruction of what remained of ancient structures by “greedy owners” (his words), who sold them as “materials for modern buildings.” This was one of the reasons Piranesi embarked on his life-long project of “preserving them forever by means of my engravings.” But neither he nor any of his con­temporaries could have ever anticipated that the fortress, which stood as part of the Arch of Titus for over 700 years, would be demolished by a modern restorer in 1822. No doubt such a future would have been as unimaginable to them as its medieval past is to us. But that is what happened. Except for the inscription at its top and the central arch with its interior bas-reliefs—which scholars and technicians are busy measuring with their ultra-violet visual absorption spectrometers—the Arch of Titus that we see today is largely a nineteenth-century monument built in travertine instead of the Pentelic marble of the original. In his Notes on Italy (1831), Stendhal recorded his dismay that the arch, “the most elegant up to the time when it was redone by M. Valadier,” had been reduced to “a copy.”

My eyes went back to the New York Times article with its headline, “Technology Identifies Lost Color at Roman Forum.” I looked again at the small photo of the Arch of Titus and noticed a figure standing on scaffolding erected under the arch apparently doing work on the bas relief. Re-reading the article, I learned that improvements in technology, according to Heinrich Piening, a conservator with the State of Bavaria Department for the Conservation of Castles, Gardens, and Lakes in Germany, have made it possible “to get a reading analyzing a grain of pigment on a square centimeter.” Piening is the expert who did the spectrometric readings on the bas relief—was he the tiny figure in the photograph?—which he then compared with a database of pigments and dyes in order to identify the original color of the menorah—a particular yellow ocher “that would have looked like gold from far away.” I was struck by the international reach—Bavaria, New York, Virginia, Rome—of this project to get the colors of ancient Rome right; and how the image of a brightly colored ancient Rome felt as disorienting to me as the image of a medieval Rome with ancient monuments turned into fortresses.

But I also could not help thinking that this international project was another sign of the predominance these days of science and technique over humane learning. Professor Fine’s desire to see what the “viewers of the first and second century saw” is understandable, but to believe, as he apparently does, that knowing, through spectrometric readings, that ancient Rome was painted brings us “much closer” to the people who lived at that time seemed to me an illusion, for we can never literally see or actually hear what people centuries before us saw or heard, as if nothing had happened in all the years that have passed between their world and ours. I have long been interested in the history of ruins-gazing and now it occurred to me that perhaps the only way we can be “closer” to ancient Rome is in reading what the humanists had to say in the presence of ruins that have since vanished under the ministrations of nineteenth-century restorers and twentieth-century archaeologists.

And so my thoughts returned again to Gibbon and to the forum—the very place to which the 27-year-old traveler rushed his first morning in Rome in 1764, his imagination so excited by his extensive readings in ancient history that he could actually see, as he put it in his Memoirs, “where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell.” In the opening paragraph of the concluding chapter of the final volume of The Decline and Fall, Gibbon quotes at length from the meditations of the Renaissance humanist Poggio on the shocking condition of the ancient city that he recorded in his Vicissitudes of Fortune (1430). Where early Christians took moral satisfaction in the destruction of pagan Rome, Italian humanists like Poggio were the first people to lament the calamities that befell the city:

The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how it is fallen! how changed! how defaced!

Re-reading Gibbon quoting Poggio, it seemed to me that the humanist knowledge of ancient texts had extraordinary powers of restoration, making the ruined edifices of antiquity whole and grand again through erudite visual imaginings, even as Poggio has the jarring experience of being brought back to his own moment by the squalor that arrived with the Dark Ages and lasted beyond Gibbon’s time:

The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill. Cast your eyes on the Palatine hill, and seek, among the shapeless and enormous fragments, the marble theatre, the obelisks, the colossal statues, the porticoes of Nero's palace: survey the other hills of the city; the vacant space is interrupted only by ruins and gardens.

Which is immediately followed by a description of the forum:

The forum of the Roman people, where they assembled to enact their laws and elect their magistrates, is now enclosed for the cultivation of pot-herbs or thrown open for the reception of swine and buffaloes.

Even though I first read Poggio’s conclusion to these melancholy reflections many years ago, I am still quite moved by the imposing visual figure he conjured, stunning in its concreteness, of what time and fortune can do to human aspirations:

The public and private edifices that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.

Over 300 years after Poggio recorded his meditations, Gibbon was still seeing and feeling what Poggio had seen and felt, and by reading Gibbon’s recitation of Poggio’s somber words over 250 years after Gibbon recorded them, I felt transported to the very spot where Poggio stood, a place I suspect that will share very little with 3-D models of ancient Rome that are being constructed today. But even more than picturing how Rome appeared at the time that the Arch of Titus was erected, while reading these passages I felt the heightened sense of fragility and mortality and pathos that comes with contemplating the grandeur that was eternal—and brightly painted—Rome.